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Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shape space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants--house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulsen told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forests, and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them. Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said. Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard. Probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier. In front of us now, Charlie had gotten hold of Max’s glasses and was methodically pressing his tongue against each lens. Max tried to coax the glasses away, but every time he got close, Charlie only bent forward and licked him, too, all the while looking Max in his small brown eyes. Max broke some leaves off the fern, ran them around Charlie’s ears and under his chin, distracting him. “They’re playing,” Dr. Paulsen explained. But it seemed more like a very gentle disagreement. Charlie shook his head at the leaves but stayed doggedly focused on tonguing Max’s glasses. “Max,” Dr. Paulsen called, and Max squinted and waved. He picked up Charlie and brought him to us. As he came closer, Charlie let the glasses hang loose in his hands, and he craned his neck toward Dr. Paulsen. Now he looked like a baby. Taped around his waist was a disposable diaper. A few of his stray hairs were caught in the tape’s glue, and he kept dipping his fingers under the rough plastic hem, trying to worry them loose. My father went to him first. He gently rubbed the top of Charlie’s head, not wanting to scare him. Charlie flinched and my father moved away. Next came Callie, who smiled and smiled, trying to get Charlie to bare his teeth back, but he wouldn’t do it. Then it was my turn. I reached out my hand to touch him. I thought he would be bristly and sharp, like a cat, but his hair was fine, so soft it was almost unbearable. I could feel, at its downy ends, the heat spreading up from his skin beneath. I pulled my hand away quickly. The scent of him stayed on my fingers, old and sharp, like the scent of witch hazel. Charlie yawned. His breath was rancid, like dried, spoiled milk. Later, when he got used to us, he would run his lips up and down our hands so that all of our skin, too, smelled like Charlie’s mouth and the hefty, mournful stench of wild animal. My mother was the last to hold him. She was crying, and she said through her tears, her hands shaking as she reached out to touch him, “Isn’t he beautiful?” I wanted to say something snide. I wanted to say what I had been telling her since she told us about this experiment: that this was crazy, that she was crazy, that it would never work. I wanted to sign bullshit. But I looked into my mother’s face, wet and wide open with joy, and I couldn’t help myself. “Yes,” I told her, “he’s beautiful.” DR. PAULSEN STAYED for dinner, but none of us even pretended to eat. We were all watching my mother and Charlie. She sat at the head of the table, Charlie on her lap, a baby bottle in her hand, trying to get him to drink. She kept her face bent close to his, her chin butting the end of the bottle. Charlie spit the nipple out once, twice. Each time he rejected it, Dr. Paulsen’s hands rose up as if she wanted to push it back in his mouth herself. My mother only saw Charlie. She refused to be discouraged. The fifth time, he took it. With a loud, rude swallow he began to eat. He drank until the little plastic bag inside crumpled down on itself. He loved the bottle so much he wouldn’t give it up until my mother rolled a piece of lettuce and held it to his mouth. He parted his lips long enough for her to pull his empty away. Dr. Paulsen studied them. She turned to my father. “You’re ready to begin teaching at Courtland County High?” “Yes,” he said. “Especially because Charlotte’s going there, too. She and I will help each other—you know, find our seat in the lunchroom and make friends and all that. Maybe we can even share a locker.” But Dr. Paulsen didn’t laugh. She was watching my mother and Charlie again. We all were. “And how do you think you’ll like teaching at Charlotte’s school?” she asked. My mother looked up. “It’s getting late for him to be awake, isn’t it?” “I suppose you’re right.” Dr. Paulsen hugged each of us good-bye. She patted Charlie quickly on the head. At the front door she stopped, turned. “He likes another drink before bed. Make sure to sign it to him. Tell him what you’re doing.” She took a step backward, still watching Charlie. But he had set her aside, was concentrating on twining his fingers through my mother’s hair. When Dr. Paulsen was gone, my mother told us it was time for bed. Our first luxury at the Toneybee: Callie and I got separate rooms. Hers was at one end of the hall and mine was at the other. I made it halfway to my room before Callie ran up behind me. “I can’t find my pajamas,” she said, breathlessly. “So?” “So, can you help me find them?” “I have to put mine on first.” “That’s okay. I’ll come with you.” In her room, we were shy with each other. Callie tried to hide herself while she changed. When she was finished, I began to leave, but she caught my hand. “Well, what is it?” “Shouldn’t we say good night to them?” Callie asked. “I don’t want to,” I said, and regretted it. “Why?” “They should have stayed with us, not Charlie.” “We’re too old for that.” “That doesn’t matter. It’s our first night here.” “They asked us to say good night.” Callie still held my hand. She shuffled her feet back and forth over the marble floor, and we both listened for a bit to the unfamiliar sound. “I feel bad not saying good night to them,” Callie said finally. I sighed. “Fine. We’ll do it. Come on.” When we got to our parents’ room, they were already in bed. In the soft glow from the lamp on the nightstand my father sat propped up on a bank of the Toneybee’s pillows, his glasses off, a book open on his lap. My mother was already curled up beside him. It was only when we got to the edge of the bed that we saw Charlie lying in the space between them. My mother said, “This is a onetime thing.” Callie leaned forward to kiss them good night. She bent toward my mother, but just as her lips brushed her cheek, Charlie lifted one thin finger and swatted it hard across Callie’s face. Callie jerked back, surprised. “It’s okay. You scared him, that’s all,” my mother explained. Callie nodded, tried to smile. It was special to be touched by Charlie, even if it was a blow. “Good night,” she called to Charlie, who kept his finger crooked above his head, a warning. I took Callie’s hand and we turned and started down the hallway back to her room. We were halfway there when we heard it. First it sounded like something in a cartoon—“hoo hoo hoo”—too silly to be real. Then a wheeze. Then a wail, so low, so long, so hollow that it sounded like the most sorrowful sound in the world. It was a very old sound, something that had welled up from a deep and hidden place to whip and sting the world. The sound suddenly broke, left a jagged stillness that was worse than the crying. I held my breath. It was a relief when it started up again. Callie and I hurried back to our parents’ room. When we got there, all the lights were on. In the glare of the overhead lamp I saw Charlie cling first to my mother’s nightgown and then to the sheets of the bed. He arched his whole body and then flattened himself over and over again. My mother knelt beside him on the bed, trying to get her hands on the small of his back, on his arms, anywhere, but he wouldn’t be still. With his mouth that wide open, I could see all the way down his throat, maybe almost to his heart, to something red and shaking. My mother was saying over and over again, “Please, sweetheart, please love, please.” My father was out of bed, standing behind her, his hands hovering above her. “All right now, all right now,” he murmured. But Charlie kept crying. He would not be comforted by any words they said.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge
Sibling rivalry is tough, but it's more difficult when the favorite child you're competing with isn't even human. Kaitlyn Greenidge's debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, follows the Freemans, a black family moving to an all-white town in order to live at the Toneybee Research Institute with Charlie, a chimpanzee their mother is teaching sign language. The book pushes readers to consider many uncomfortable realities of family: namely, that our ties to one another are more selfish and tenuous than we'd like to think. The novel's success lies, in part, in its scope. Each member of the family offers her or his perspective on what happens over the course of their time at the institute, though the primary storytellers are Laurel, the mother who grew up in an isolated white town in Maine and is convinced that her deep bond with Charlie will bring her success despite the strain it places on her family, and Charlotte, the oldest daughter, who experiences a parallel sense of isolation and otherness while coming to terms with having a chimpanzee for a "brother." The novel also travels back to the founding of the Toneybee in the 1920s and follows the story of Nymphadora, a black woman who lived in the town, and her relationship with Dr. Gardner, a British scientist who takes an obsessive interest in her with horrific consequences.
The novel is an exploration of how language, historical legacies, and our concepts of race and sexuality inform who we are and, ultimately, how we love.
I spoke to Kaitlyn on the night of her book release about respectability politics, when to put the research aside and start writing, and the difficulty of finding swear words in sign language. Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: The press packet mentioned that your mother was recruited to teach sign language to chimps. How did that come about?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: My mom is hearing but always loved sign language and studied it in college. Her first job out of college was going around the state of Maryland when they were shutting down the mental institutions and deciding who got to go and who got to stay. For years, we were just putting anyone who was undesirable into mental institutions. So she would have to figure out if these people really needed to be there or whether they were just deaf. She would show some people sign language, and it would be the first time they had been able to communicate with anyone, because their parents had been hearing and had just institutionalized them. Some people knew how to sign but were afraid to use it because they had learned it was shameful. They were literally told, "If you don't lip-read, we'll cut your hands off." Which is horrifying.
When she and my dad moved to New York she saw a job that required you to know sign language, so she applied for it, and when they found out she had a young daughter who was my older sister they got really excited and told her that they would like her to teach sign language to a chimp and raise the chimp around her young daughter for a few months. She said no to that because she felt it was cruel to do that to an animal, who would end up bonding with the humans it was around.
BNR: Was any of that the original impetus for writing the book?
KG: No, I wrote it because I went to a reading series in Brooklyn that was about animals and deviance, and they were talking about a family that raised their son with a chimp in the 1920s and wrote a book about it, called The Ape and the Child. I thought that was really interesting and wanted to know more about that dynamic. A couple of people have written memoirs about having a chimp as a sibling, so I read those as well. But then I realized I was getting obsessed with research and not really writing, so I had to set that aside.
BNR: How do you know when to set the research aside and when to re-enter it?
KG: That was a big thing I had to learn. I'd taken creative writing classes in high school and had always wanted to do creative writing. But before I went to my MFA program, I'd primarily been working as a historical researcher, so it took a while to train myself to stop writing in that mode. I think part of it also was knowing that I wanted the book to talk about a few different topics but I didn't want it to read as an argument.
BNR: The novel is told via seven different perspectives: each member of the Freeman family, Nymphadora, and a short chapter from Julia Toneybee, the institute's founder. How did you decide on that structure?
KG: What was really important to me was talking about family dynamics. I didn't feel like I could say everything I wanted to say about family by using only one person's perspective to tell that story. When I first started writing I thought it would just be from the daughters' Charlotte and Callie's perspectives. But it took eight years to write this book: so I aged [Laughs], and I began to become aware of what it means to be a parent, and all of the compromises you are making every second of the day when you are nurturing somebody and you never know in the moment if those compromises are going to be okay, or if they are the worst thing you could be doing to that person.
BNR: Were there perspectives that were harder to slip into or that surprised you?
KG: The perspective that took a while to get into was Julia Toneybee's, this upper-class, white Bostonian woman. So it took a while for me to figure out how she was going to say what she was going to say. The Nymphadora parts were really fun to write, because she's this really twisted character, and she has a lot of blind spots. I love it when you are reading a book and the character knows less than you do. That's a really satisfying stance to write from. There are a lot of parts in her narrative that are cringe-worthy, so it took a lot of time to write through that cringe: I don't like what this character is doing, but I also want to put it down on the page.
BNR: Was Nymphadora's involvement with the Stars of the Morning based on moral or religious movements happening in the black community in the 1920s?
KG: The Stars of the Morning was based on black fraternal and sororal organizations. In pre–civil rights America, when there was no real access to government support, they acted as mutual aid and help societies for blacks in certain communities. They also served as job networks for people or provided a kind of insurance, since insurance companies often wouldn't sell policies to black people, or if they sold them, it would be at extra-high rates. They worked as unemployment aid for people instead of, or in addition to, welfare. But they were also very much class-based, too, so sometimes there were organizations that were open to working-class people, but other times there were organizations that were clearly about maintaining middle- or upper-middle-class status.
I wanted to write from the perspective of someone who was in one of those organizations that is all about unity and pride in being part of a group but who, at her core, feels intensely lonely and intensely disconnected from the people around her. I thought, if someone doesn't feel a connection to these groups, where would that disconnect come in?
BNR: It seems that disconnect comes in for Nymphadora because the Stars of the Morning has such a strong overarching value of denial as a way to achieve perfection.
KG: Yes. There is this idea that if you have been dehumanized by the larger mainstream society, the best answer to that is to keep proving that you are human even though the mainstream will never see you as human. So instead of saying, "I'm a human and I make mistakes and I fail and I should have the chance to be a whole person and experience all aspects of life," you say, "I am the best possible version of a black person or a gay person or whatever I could possibly be, and I've never made a mistake in my life, and I've never messed up, and I'm not like those other people that you think I am." To live your life like that requires a lot of self-discipline and a lot of denial of how you're actually living.
BNR: That is powerfully echoed when Nymphadora looks at a magazine of white women in sexually provocative poses and says, "What I envy is not their skin but their insouciance. I envy the freedom to sin with only a little bit of consequence, to commit one selfish act and not have it mean the downfall of my entire people."
KG: I think about that a lot. The idea of "I would just like to be able to live my life and not have people attack me for it," which is often what happens.
BNR: Did the study that Dr. Gardner does in the 1920s, comparing chimps to black people, take place in real life as well?
KG: Not that I know of. But I'm sure someone somewhere was doing something really messed up. [Laughs] I'm always interested in how pervasive those arguments about eugenics are in America and how they come back again and again in different ways. I think the most recent overt example was The Bell Curve [a book published in 1994 by two white men that argues intelligence is an inherited genetic trait and this inherited intelligence is the most predictive factor in a person's overall economic and social success]. That book came out when I was in middle school, and I remember thinking, Why are people giving this book credence? I remember my school having really earnest assemblies about it, as if it was something we should grapple with.
BNR: The book talks about being an outsider, on a number of levels, and whether it's possible to be an insider without having to compromise the fullness of your humanity.
KG: Yes, the perspective of an outsider is a really rich place to write from. It's an identity that a lot of people feel an affinity with even if, from the outside, it doesn't look like they are an outsider. I wanted to explore that and also much how some of us try to tell ourselves that that outsiderness doesn't apply to us or to our particular moment in time.
Charlotte and Adia, for example, are both deeply lonely teenagers and outsiders. Every teenager thinks they are an outsider, but they have actual proof they're the only two black girls in their class. And Adia's way of dealing with it is to claim she is part of a larger tradition of black revolutionaries, but without really understanding what that means quoting slogans, but without reading texts deeply or internalizing any of it. That's the ironic thing about language: what we write to empower or heal ourselves, a reader can come along and even with the best of intentions turn it into something destructive. We can do our best to put lifelines out into the world, but we also, as readers and writers, have to be able to identify and heal those weaknesses in ourselves that might make us misinterpret or be a blind spot.
BNR: The use of sign language in the books is another treatment of the "insider vs. outsider" theme. How did black sign language originate, and how did it differ from mainstream or white sign language?
KG: It originated because deaf people were segregated for a long time, so black schools for the deaf originated their own spelling. In the 1970s, American Sign Language went through a real interrogation of their signs, and people tried to assign new signs to words so that they were less derogatory toward women and people of color. Black sign language did not go through that process, so they are still using the old signs. It's a conundrum because while some people find those signs offensive, it is people of color using those signs among themselves to address each other.
On a side note, Evangelical Christian groups are also super into sign language. I think it stems from the idea that you would want to translate the Bible into every possible language so that everyone could get the Word of God. So, when I was trying to find signs for curse words I kept getting redirected to their sites, which was hilarious.
BNR: What's your favorite thing about language?
KG: I like when language is playful. I'm interested in the split between academic language and colloquial language. Colloquial language can often be doing much more interesting things. A friend sent me a call for papers about #drakestudies, which was a really great thing that was just happening on Twitter when people thought a Drake lyric could apply to an academic institution. It was very straightforward and funny, and I would totally search for that on Twitter. But then the call for papers was this long, convoluted thing. Why would you take a very concise, easily understood concept and create this morass of academic language out of it?
BNR: It seems like overly academic language can also be a way of hiding something.
KG: I think it's a way of denying emotions. For a while I would read historical analysis about abolitionism or nineteenth- century black women, and once I got through the really dense language I would find these fascinating bits of information and think, This would be so helpful for people to know. But if you aren't getting paid to read these texts, as I was, no one is going to push through this academic tome to get to them. So, why are we writing in this way if it's not an effective way to communicate? Writing a novel seemed like the way to get at those really complex ideas and still be accessible to everyone.
March 23, 2016